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Written by Martina Grossi from The Global Curious.
We’d been in Istanbul for minutes before the afternoon call for prayer started. For a split moment, goosebumps sprang down my spine, packed with the excitement of finally setting foot in this mythical land.
Istanbul is a tale of two continents, empires, and millennia. Also known as Byzantium and Constantinople by good ol’ fellows back in the day, Istanbul is one of the most important cities in the history of our era. Part of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, it wasn’t until the 15th century that it became an Ottoman bastion, adopting the Islamic faith. Divided into two by the Bosphorus strait, the Western side of Istanbul belongs to Europe and the Eastern to Asia.
Even though you could spend months exploring the city, it’s possible to get a taste of the top sites in less than a week. In this article, you’ll find a 3 to 4-days itinerary to Istanbul that will take you through the main highlights -and across continents! How cool is that?
Where To Stay In Istanbul: Main Areas And Districts
Most of the main highlights in Istanbul lie on the European side of the city. However, the Asian -Anatolian- section gives visitors the chance to experience more of the local way of living.
During my visit, I stayed on the Anatolian side, in Kadikoy. This area doesn’t come up very often on travel guides as it’s not central, and you’d need to take the ferry to cross to the main sights. Yet, I highly recommend it if you fly into the Sabiha Gokcen Airport, or would like a taster of the vibrant local life -plus stunning sunset views.
Istanbul’s main districts for visitors are Sultanahmet, Grand Bazaar, Beyoglu, Karakoy, Galata, and Sirkeci.
Sultanahmet is the historic epicenter of Istanbul, where the most important sites are. Staying here means you can pretty much walk anywhere, and enjoy being in the midst of it.
The areas of the Grand Bazaar and Sirkeci are also walking distance from most spots. Keep in mind these are part of bigger neighborhoods, in this case, the district of Fatih.
The southern section of the huge district of Beyoglu is also very popular amongst travelers, especially backpackers. It includes Karakoy, Galata, and Taksim, all areas you’ll explore during your visit, and where you can check out the city’s nightlife, or stroll around funky streets and cafes.
Getting To Istanbul From The Airport
Up until 2019, two airports were serving Istanbul. With the Ataturk Airport closed for commercial flights, now the Istanbul Airport (IST) and the Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) are the only two operational. IST is located on the European side, 54 km from the city center. Sabiha Gokcen, on the Asian side, is located about 44 km outside town.
If arriving in the new Istanbul Airport, you can reach the central areas by metro, bus or taxi in just about one hour.
The trip from Sabiha Gokcen into central Istanbul is longer, but you can take the Havabus -the airport’s shuttle bus service- and go all the way up to Taksim. We got off our Havabus in Kadikoy, after about a one-hour trip.
Getting Around Istanbul
With 15 million people living in Istanbul and its surrounding areas, the city counts with a quite developed public transport network. Getting around by metro, tram, bus, or ferry takes time just because of the traffic jams and the crowds.
In this 3 to 4 days Istanbul itinerary, I’ve focused mainly on spots you can reach by walking, except of course, if you decide to stay or visit Kadikoy. Fast-movers can hop on the trams -the modern or the traditional- as these are cheap and efficient.
If you fancy exploring the Anatolian side, you’d have to take the ferry, which is also cheap, convenient, and a great experience! I’ve shared simit -a type of bread that looks like a bagel- and tea with two ladies, heard local artists perform, and enjoyed the stunning Istanbulian skyline from the sea. For sure, there’s a bit of romance on the idea of crossing continents just like that!
The Best Time Of The Year To Visit Istanbul
March to May and September to November are probably the best months to visit Istanbul. I was there in early May and it was still a bit fresh, but warm enough to enjoy a full day out.
During peak months -aka European summer-, the crowds get crazy. So better visit over shoulder season to make the most of the city.
Touring Istanbul over winter can also be a great experience as the city lies under layers of rain and sometimes even snow, which only adds to the winter charm!
Currency In Turkey And Ways Of Payment
Turkey’s local currency is the Turkish Lira, which is about USD15. Even when many establishments accept foreign cards, you’ll need cash to make your life easy around town. Public transport, food stalls, market vendors, and even some attractions accept only cash.
For some historical sites, you can buy your ticket online if you don’t feel comfortable carrying a stash-of-cash.
Make sure to confirm with your accommodation the best way of payment, as some may give you a discount if you use euros, dollars or simply pay cash.
There are plenty of ATMs to go around, so once you figure out your bank’s foreign transaction fees, you may as well use this method for withdrawing money.
3 to 4 Days In Istanbul Itinerary
Before we keep going, let me give you a bit of insight into how I’ve put together this itinerary. As I mentioned before, I stayed in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of town. This meant that every day I’d hop on the ferry. However, this doesn’t affect the timing and order of this itinerary, as, understandably, you may choose to stay on the European side.
Another thing I’d like you to know is that I LOVE FOOD. So I’m throwing some of the places our local friend took us to. Food in Istanbul is really, truly, excellent. So if you are a foodie like me, then you’d want to set aside time for proper feasting. And drinking coffee. And having tea -of course!
You can change the order of the days depending on your arrival day, as many places have differential opening times.
Let’s count your arrival day as the ‘day 0,’ so you get this itinerary going on your first full day in Istanbul!
Istanbul Itinerary Day 1
Start your day exploring the center of ancient Istanbul!
09:30 am – The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
There’s no cost to get in -all mosques are free, though donations are welcome. Know that the mosque opens for tourists only between prayer times. During prayer, you can still get in and join, but you can’t take photos. On Fridays, the mosque opens only after 1.30 pm, so try to skip this day as it gets very crowded.
Current visiting hours are: 08:30 am – 11:30 am, 1 pm – 2:30 pm, 3:30 pm – 4:45 pm. Fridays after 1 pm.
Estimated length of visit: 1 / 1.5 hs
11:30 am – Topkapi Palace
After grabbing a sweet treat and sipping your first Türk kahvesi (sediment coffee) it’s time to head to the second stop of the day, just a 10-minute walk from the Blue Mosque. The Topkapi Palace.
I strongly recommend you to pre-purchase your tickets online to save time at the queue. The cost of the entrance is TL100. It’s 100% worth to pay a bit extra for your online ticket and save some precious time!
The exquisite architecture of the palace, built in the 15th century as the administrative epicenter of the Ottoman Empire -for almost 400 years- will draw you in for hours.
The museum is closed on Tuesdays and has different opening times according to the time of the year. If you are planning to visit the whole complex -including the Hagia Irene and the Harem- then make sure these are included on your online ticket- Otherwise, get separate tickets as the entry booths.
Even though you’ll come across crowds during your visit, the complex is huge, so you should be fine. Try to avoid heading there on a Friday. With the mosques closed till the afternoon, most people choose to head to the palace instead.
Estimated length of visit: 3 / 4 hours
4:00 pm – Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Cistern)
After visiting the Topkapi Palace, head to the last stop of the day! Located just a 5-minute walk from the palace, the Basilica Cistern is one of the most fascinating and mysterious spots around Istanbul.
This underground cistern was built in the 6th century. It’s not only huge, but offers a bit of an obscure sight due to its darkness, dump atmosphere, massive columns, brick walls, and Medusa Heads bearing myths and unknown origins.
As the visit to the Cistern doesn’t take that much time, queues are more bearable, and you may even be out in about 30 minutes.
Visiting hours are: 09:00 am – 6:30 pm
Estimated length of visit: 0.5 / 1 hs
Finish your day meandering Sultanahmet’s old streets!
Istanbul Itinerary Day 2
Now that you are acquainted with the city vibes, let me get you started on day 2 with a hearty breakfast!
09:00 am Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, the Hagia Sophia operated as a museum up until July 2020, when it got its mosque status back by a presidential decree.
Clearly, Hagia Sophia, which has an overwhelming historical value, will change its opening hours to follow the prayers’ times. So to make it easy for you, it’s better to start your day here, where both times overlap, just in case. Plus, in the early mornings, you get to beat the crowds!
A visit to Hagia Sophia takes, on average, from 1.5 to 2 hs. Serving as a Christian cathedral for almost 1000 years, it became a mosque in 1453 under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and then a museum in the 1930s.
Visiting Istanbul and skipping Hagia Sophia is like going to Rome and not visiting the Colosseum. So take your time to learn, and explore this 6th-century Byzantine gem.
Once Hagia Sophia is back to being a mosque, the entrance will be free.
Visiting hours since July 2020: 08:30 am – 11:30 am, 1 pm – 2:30 pm, 3:30 pm – 4:45 pm. Fridays after 1 pm (to be confirmed)
Estimated length of visit: 1.5 hs / 2 hs
11:00 am – Sultanahmet Köftecisi
Just a few minutes away from Hagia Sophia is the famous Sultanahmet Köftecisi. This is the most popular eatery of the Old Town and for good reason. It’s better to plan for late breakfast or early lunch here as it gets crowded! The restaurant opens at 10:30 am and serves the best meatballs you’ll ever try in your life. I’ve eaten here, and it’s all true. Also, I’m confident suggesting this place as it was our local friend’s choice for brekkie.
1:00 pm – Grand Bazaar
Happy bellies! It’s time to head to the Grand Bazaar. The secret here? To go with the flow. The Grand Bazaar is always crowded, bustling, and simply a gift to the senses.
Even if you are not planning to do any shopping, devote at least 3 hours to explore it, as it’s one of the biggest covered markets in the world.
As I’m more into food than I am into shopping, I really enjoyed our Türk kahvesi (sediment coffee) stops and baklava treats inside the market.
The Bazaar’s main area comprises 64 streets and 22 gates, so you’d need quite a lot of time to see it all. If you are planning to do some shopping, try to have an idea of the type of items you are looking for and head directly to the corresponding gates. If you are happy getting lost, then be my guest! You’ll have a great time.
The Bazaar is open 7 days a week now, but as it was traditionally closed on Sunday, many merchants choose not to open.
Opening hours: 10 am – 6 pm (some shops stay open until 7 pm)
Estimated length of visit: 2 / 5 hs
5:00 pm – Crossing the Galata Bridge And Sunset At The Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi)
You may be knacked after spending hours exploring the Grand Bazaar. But, if you want to keep it going, then head to the Galata Tower, 2.2 km away from the market. You can either take the tram or walk.
The fun part is that you’ll be crossing the Golden Horn, and, if you walk, you’d traverse the Galata Bridge -another top sight of Istanbul. Check out the fishermen and the vibrant spirit of this area! If you want to see them in full bloom, then move around this itinerary a bit, and be at the bridge by early morning.
The Galata Tower is located in the district of Beyoglu. There’s a lot to explore in this area, but for now, try to focus on going up the tower and be there before sunset to see the city covered in shades of gold -magic!
Open until 7 pm, try to be there early-ish as you may have to queue for tickets. There’s a really nice cafe at the top, so if you need a rest, just hang out there.
Opening hours: 09 am – 7 pm
Estimated visit time: 1 hs
Istanbul Itinerary Day 3
This day is going to be divided into 2. You’ll spend most of your day exploring some of the many attractions on Beyoglu and then head to the district of Moda -in Kadikoy, Asian side- for premium sunset views.
10:00 Exploring the streets of Karakoy
Take some time to wander the lovely and funky pebbled streets of Karakoy. Head to Hoca Tahsin for the ultimate IG pic in this narrow street covered with colorful umbrellas.
Stop for tea, coffee -compulsory!- and once you are ready for lunch, head to my other favorite restaurant in town, again, chosen by our local friend.
12:00 Lunch at Bankalar Lokantasi
Lovely, cheap, intimate, and delish. This place features a brick-layered arch that will add an extra dash of charm to your lunch. There’s a buffet where you can choose from a variety of home-made local foods, plus, the attention is outstanding.
13:30 Istiklal Avenue and Taksim Square
From Bankalar Lokantasi, make your way to Taksim Square via Istiklal Avenue. Over 3 million people walk this street every day! This is the place to go to soak in all the hustle and bustle of the city. Take your time to traverse the 2 km between Karakoy and Taksim, or hop on the old tram -or the metro- if you don’t feel like walking!
Taksim square is the center of Istanbul’s social and political life, so there’s a lot to observe and learn here. It may not be the flashiest, but it’s definitely an important part of your visit if you are interested in culture, history, or politics.
If you’d rather keep walking, check out the streets around Taksim. Swing by the markets, cafes, shops, and old Christian churches.
17:00 – Taking The Ferry To Moda, In Kadikoy
Once you are ready to wrap up your Beyoglu adventure, go back to Karakoy and catch the ferry to Kadikoy.
Enjoy the views and soak it all in because even though the trip is cheap, the views are worth a million dollars. Services depart twice per hour, and the trip lasts about 20 minutes.
Once you get off in Kadikoy, you’ll get a different perspective and view of Istanbul. This area is uber-busy, so start making your way toward the Moda neighborhood.
The goal here is to catch the sunset sitting by the rocks of Moda’s seaside, or with a drink at any of its many bars. Also, celebrate you just made it to a whole new continent! If you have still energy left in you, wander the streets of Moda. The Asian side of Istanbul is quite secular, and a good reflection of the local life.
After sunset, you can either make your way back or stay for dinner. Ferries run until 11:30 pm -worth to double-check before though!
Istanbul Itinerary Day 4
Time to wrap up! On this day, you can take the chance of going back to any of the places you loved the most, visit more mosques, historical sites -like the Dolmabahce Palace- or book a tour around the Bosphorus.
If you are into pampering, spend some time at a Hammam -traditional Turkish Baths. Some are open all day long, whereas others close around 4 pm. Prices vary from bath to bath, but you can expect to pay from USD10 to over USD100. Allow a couple of hours for the whole experience.
Getting Ready To Go To Istanbul
I hope you use this itinerary as a guide to making the most of your time in Istanbul. This city is a charmer, so don’t worry if you are planning a comeback before leaving! If you are backpacking, remember to gear up for your trip, and dress accordingly!
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